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Hip-Hop Fridays: The Hip-Hop Generation by Rev. Al Sharpton

I had a discussion with a few rappers a while back, and I asked them why they use so much profanity and are so misogynistic in their music.

"Rev, we're like a mirror to society," one of the rappers said. "We are merely reflecting what we see."

"Well, I don't know about you, but I use a mirror to correct what's wrong with me," I told them. "I don't look in the mirror to see my hair messed up and my teeth need brushing and just walk out of the house that way. I use the mirror to fix me."

This hip-hop culture must use their music, their influence to correct what's wrong, not to continue to perpetuate what's wrong, not continue to promote what's wrong. They have the power to do that. And if they really want to have an impact on society, they must change their focus and show America the best of us instead of the worst.

I went to a hip-hop conference in New York, and one of the main topics of discussion was a fight for the right to use bitch and ho in lyrics. They wanted the right to call a woman a bitch - something the slave master called black women with impunity.

With all the stuff going on in this world, all they're worried about is being able to call a woman out of her name?! That's their cause? First of all, it's wrong. But second, it is insulting. These rappers and "hip-hop impresarios" weren't worried about unemployment or the financial conditions of those who support their records and made them stars. They weren't worried about the education system that keeps too many of their fans and families in poverty. They weren't worried about voting rights. They didn't have any conferences on any of that. There wasn't one seminar entitled "Economic Empowerment" or "Jobs for the 21st Century."

No, they want the right to call somebody a ho or a bitch - somebody who brought them into this world. As far as I'm concerned, they are low-down devious things who aren't worth the millions of dollars young people spend to make them stars.

When I look at the hip-hop generation I am disappointed, but I also see promise. I see potential unrealized. I see tremendous power. These young people have created a culture. Their words, their spirit is so powerful that their voices have penetrated the mainstream culture to the point where America's culture is intertwined with the hip-hop culture, from its language to its clothing to its music. You cannot turn on a television or watch a movie and not see the influence of hip-hop. Even suburban America has been bitten by the hip-hop bug.

Unfortunately, much of what they're selling is a fraud. They spew hedonism, misogyny, and self-hate. They glorify the prison culture, the pimp culture, and drug culture. They tell the young that they're not worthy unless they're "rocking" Chanel, Gucci, or wearing platinum and diamonds. Not only is this message immoral, but it is also flawed. It's a lie.

The most ludicrous thing in the world is to see a former rapper walking around Broadway with gold teeth and a tarnished ring, his career is gone and he has nothing else. That's how most of these stories end, but nobody is rapping or singing about that.

These artists get huge advances from the record labels, and the first thing they do is run out and buy a big, fancy car. They buy, buy, buy what they wanty, and beg for what they need, and end up with nothing. I think that projecting these images to young people - the bling-bling and the showpieces - and not talking about real estate and land and the fundamental things in life, is almost criminal. These so-called artists are leading our youth down a road that will ultimately lead to their destruction

When I was working with James Brown, one of the many things that he preached to me was how he was in show business and how too many of his peers focused on the show and forgot about the business. These young people must be made to realize that first and foremost, they're in a business. And it's a fleeting one at that. An artist can be hot today and gone tomorrow. In the old days, you would find an artist who would be around for ten or twenty years. They had staying power. But today it's one or two years and it's over. So what happens then? What happens when they've spent all their money and their career is over? They have to plan for the days when they won't be hot. Rather than buying the most expensive cars and the biggest diamonds and the baddest watch, which in a year or two will have little or no value, why not plan for the future?

That's the message I would like to hear coming from the hip-hop community. I would like them to make records about the importance of education and talk about social responsibility and even political power.

The hip-hop generation has the power to really change this nation for the better. It has already had a tremendous impact. There is no question that American culture has been irrevocably influenced by the hip-hop community. But the hip-hop community has stopped way short of reaching its potential. Hip-hop has already permeated the social fabric of this nation, now it can also change the politics; it can also change social policy. People in power would have to listen because their children are also walking around at home with the baggy pants, the baseball caps, and the sneakers with no laces.

If those in the hip-hop community who have so much influence would use their power, maybe we would see some real changes in this country. The question is, are those who are in leadership of the hip-hop world mature and strategic enough to take the next step?

During the rock-and-roll movement in the 1960s, you saw the switch from sex, drugs, and rock and roll to politics and social change. What started as a hippy rock movement with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Allen Ginsberg turned into a revolution that ended up stopping the war in Vietnam. The same people who gave us Woodstock also started a social rebellion and a cultural revolution. They literally reshaped America. They used their music, their art, and their poetry to change this country and put pressure on the power structure. Hip-hop can do the same thing. Hip-hop has already done what rock did culturally, but will it be able to have the same impact on foreign policy or other political issues? Does it even care?

Russell Simmons, who is one of the fathers of hip-hop, is attempting to put a political spin on the hip-hop movement. But we need some of the popular artists to get involved, too. I've known Russell for almost twenty-five years. He did a movie in the early 1980s called Krush Groove, and there were riots that broke out in several theaters in Queens where the movie was playing. They wanted to take the movie out of theaters, and I went out and protested to make sure the movie chain did not.

In the last few years, Russell has become more political. In some cases I have agreed and in other cases I have disagreed with his politics. But the question for Russell and others of the hip-hop generation is not who they're going to endorse for political office, but what they're going to endorse.

They cannot get caught up in personalities; it has to be bigger than that. The question is not narrow partisan politics; the question is a broad social political agenda. I hope that's what Russell and others are striving to get. Their candidate and their support must come out of a broad-based vision. It can't be "I like Joe and that's who I'm going to vote for." But it should be, " I support Ann because she follows my vision for America."

The hip-hop generation will not have a real legacy until it is able to move from the flash and the bling-bling into establishing a vision for the future of America and following through.

Despite my differences with them, I will continue to support the hip-hop community because I have faith that they will eventually reach their potential.

The first big hip-hop summit that gave birth to all the others happened right at the House of Justice and was hosted by the National Action Network. Everybody from Sean (P.Diddy) Combs to Master P. to The Source magazine (I was probabaly the first non-hip-hop artist to be featured on the cover of The Source) came together to talk about the state of hip-hop.

I couldn't make the second hip-hop summit because I was in jail, but so many of the artists tried to come through to visit me while they were in New York. So I have an ongoing dialogue with the hip-hop community, and I believe they respect me. At our 2002 National Action Network Convention, we had a hip-hop seminar.

There's the temptation of saying, " I don't want to deal with them because they are irresponsible!" Well, I can't say that, because we're talking about our children; we're talking about our future and I'm not willing to just write them off. We must deal with them. We cannot patronize them, we must have honest dialogue and challenge them at the same time. But then you must also be prepared to be challenged, because a lot of their negative energies are born out of the failure of the adults in our society. Their words are a warning to us. We must come together and challenge one another. We have not developed an institution to teach them a lot of the things they should know.

They don't know the struggle because we don't talk to them about it. We haven't taken them under our wings and groomed them. We've ignored them or worse, considered them not worthy of our time. And we're paying for it now. So how do they inherit a legacy they don't even know about or understand? And how do they become effective leaders when they don't see any who speak to them?

With my National Action Network, I've recently begun to groom leaders and create a system of leadership. I push young people with promise to take charge in their neighborhoods and communities and to be activists. I push, so much so that many have argued with me that I push them too hard. But I have to because I understand that unless we build a collective, we're not going to get it done. There are no messiahs.

I have changed. I grew up in the charismatic leadership movement, where one man took charge and carried a movement. That's how how I started out. But that was ineffective long term because every time the leader was killed or became discredited, the movement died.

We need to focus on a new style of leadership today, and the hip-hop community will be instrumental in implementing the system. I had to change because I knew that the charismatic leadership system will not work for us anymore.

I will push the hip-hop community and challenge them to reach higher. I challenge them to stop this whole glorifying of a reckless lifestyle. And I understand the difficulties they face. I have had artists tell me that record labels won't sign them unless they have a certain image or rap about certain things. They are told, "If you don't do this, shake your botty show your tits, talk bad English and purport sex and violence, you won't get a deal."

I understand that. But there has to be some integrity, some sense of righteousness among these artists. They cannot conspire to denigrate our race for the dollar. There are some who would argue that the negative images are the ones that sell. I challenge the hip-hop community to challenge the record industry and say, "That's a lie." They told James Brown that "I'm Black and I'm Proud" would not sell. It did sell. Even white folks bought the record, and it is still being sampled today. That was thirty-four years ago. Are you telling me that America is less mature than it was thirty-four years ago?

And are you telling me that all these thugged-out, tough-guy rappers are afraid to try something new?

Note: The above is an excerpt taken from Rev. Al Sharpton's new book, "Al On America", available now in the BlackElectorate Book Store at:

Rev. Sharpton will be joining us at on Monday, December 30, 2002 at 7:30PM EST, for a live chat session. Create your free BEC Chat Room account today so that you may participate in the discussion:

Rev. Al Sharpton

Friday, December 27, 2002

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